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The 2000 Debate Myth

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Never let it be said that I don’t know how to spend an exciting Saturday night, I’m re-watching the first Bush/Gore debate. (SPOILER: Bush lies his ass off, particularly about his massive upper-class tax cuts! Gore patiently explains why the lies are lies! Centrist pundits and many allegedly tough-minded leftists alike believe Bush’s transparently phony moderation!)

Anyway, there’s a widespread assumption that Gore ran a terrible campaign. Is that true? Maybe! The question can’t really be answered by data. Certain common individual arguments are comically ignorant about inexorable trends in American history (Gore was incompetent for losing southern and border states Obama lost by 15 points in a landslide year not even running against an orthodox conservative!) Certain are comically ignorant and contradicted by follow-up pundit’s fallacies. (“Gore should have pandered more to the conservative southern Democrats who voted for Bush, and should have run to the hard left!”) But it’s possible (and I think likely) that Gore’s campaign underperformed.

Whether any underperfomance was based on factors in Gore’s control, however, is another model. One very durable myth is that Gore’s performance in the first debate was inept, and this was a crucial factor. Well, the debate may well have turned out to be a crucial factor. But as Bob Somerby helpfully reminds us, this wasn’t because Gore wasn’t seen as winning the debate by the public:

Let’s start with false. According to Cooper, Candidate Gore sighed over and over again at his first debate with Candidate Bush. Apparently as a result, “Bush, the underdog, surprise[d] by winning the debate.”

Increasingly, that last claim is part of the script, but it’s just basically false. After that first Bush-Gore debate, five major news orgs conducted “overnight polls,” surveying people who watched the debate.

Gore was the winner in all five surveys. He won by an average margin of ten points.

Cooper works for CNN. Gore won CNN’s overnight poll, 56 percent to 42—unless you listen to Cooper today, in which case Gore of course lost.

By the way: Did Gore “sigh over and over again” at that debate? On balance, we’d have to say no. If you want to test this question yourself, you can watch that full 90-minute debate at C-Span.

We watched that tape about six months ago. You can hear a few sighs or intakes of breath—but in all honesty, we’d say that they’re few and far between. If you watch the full 90 minutes, you can decide for yourself.

Did George Bush win that first debate? Only after the press corps began playing videotaped loops of Gore’s troubling sighs (with the volume cranked, of course). And only after the press corps invented several new “lies” by Gore.

Gore scored a knockout win with the public in the first debate. Bush ended up as the ultimate “winner” because of the way the debate was spun by a media that was engaged in an ongoing War On Gore. Blaming Gore for underperforming, the debate should remind us, is mostly blaming the victim.

And, as Somerby as said many times, it’s crucial to remember that this War was not driven primarily by right-wing media, but by MSNBC and the New York Times and the Washington Post. And, yet, this kneecapping still largely ignored when the 2000 campaign is discussed. And worse, as Frank Rich shows, you can have been an active part of the kneecapping — not only endlessly repeating dishonest scripts but making up lies of your very own — and still be taken seriously as a liberal pundit as long as you started to make some banal critiques of the man you worked tirelessly to put in the White House after it was too late to make any difference.

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